Confronting news avoidance

Initiatives such as slow news, seen as effective antidotes to breaking news, offer hope at a time of information overload

June 24, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 12:51 am IST

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

One is rarely reminded of literature when reading an exhaustive domain survey. The 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, which covered 38 markets globally across six continents, documented an increasing phenomenon — news avoidance. It pointed out that improved technology increases access to news but also makes it easier to avoid it.

Reading this section of the survey, I was reminded of Toni Morrison’s insightful observation about “our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging”. On receipt of the 2008 PEN/Borders Literary Service Award, the Nobel laureate said: “Certain kinds of trauma visited on people are so deep, so cruel that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice and rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” What she said about writing in general applies to journalism too.

There are multiple reasons for news avoidance. According to the Reuters Institute study, polarisation, misinformation, and low trust may not be the only issues facing the news industry. In its data this year, it found that almost a third (32%) of its respondents said that they actively avoid news — three percentage points more than in 2017. This, according to the study, may be because the world has become a more depressing place or because media coverage tends to be relentlessly negative — or a mix of the two. News avoidance figure reached a staggering 11% even in Japan where reading the news is often seen as a duty.

Uneven fallout

Ruth Palmer and Benjamin Toff, in their prediction for journalism in 2019 for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, pointed out that for a growing number of people, navigating the stresses of daily life involves opting out of following the news. Their biggest concern was that the news avoidance will most probably play out unevenly, and hence it may increase existing inequalities. For instance, they rightly pointed out that a gender gap in news avoidance is cause for alarm because, “if women, and lower-income women in particular, are less informed about political affairs than other groups, they may be poorly positioned to advocate for themselves politically.” It is important here to recollect the response of a woman in 24-35 age group in the U.K.: “News is a major negative and has a huge impact on everyone who watches it. There is never any positive or happy news.”

Mr. Toff argued that for news avoiders, the high costs of consuming news in terms of time or emotional resources are not offset by the perceived benefits because the value of political information as social currency may be low. A study by the Pew Research revealed that seven out of 10 Americans have news fatigue. In this study, it was clear that feeling overwhelmed by the news is more common among those who follow the news less closely than among those who are avid consumers. Hence, journalists may not be the best judges to understand the growing distance between citizens and news.

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, collated some of the comments for a short article on news avoidance by Isabelle Roughol, senior editor-at-large at LinkedIn, to understand the range of factors that has contributed to news fatigue. He found out that by focussing too much on trust factor and the polarising voices on Twitter, news managers are missing the larger group that just doesn’t like the meal news media have been serving: “The ones who find the news we produce disempowering, stress-inducing, and, frankly, not worth the time and effort.”

The increased access, the unending news cycle where news is breaking every second, and the proliferation of platforms that offer news have led to a form of news overload. In this context, initiatives such as slow news, seen as antidotes to the debilitating effect of breaking news, offer hope. The proponents of this model are looking to respond with more meaningful, inclusive, and less relentlessly negative coverage — often developed in closer collaboration with audiences. The Reuters study revealed that explanatory journalism is resonating well with the younger readers. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, we need a language that helps restore a sense of belonging.

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